Shakespeare's Black Man

Hosted by

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

City Garage wastes no time before going there in their production of Othello/Desdemona.

Moments after the house lights go down, Othello and Desdemona are having sex, draped in red silk against City Garage's signature blue background. It's provocative ... if predictable. Then as quickly and sexually as it began, positions change and he's on top of her smothering her with a pillow.

Unfortunately, it's probably the most compelling part of the play.

You see, Othello is having an identity crisis ... and he's not the only one. He and Desdemona are stranded living in Cyprus. It's modern day. He's bogged down with work, sick of ruling the troops and looking for a change. Desdemona isn't fairing much better. She's busy trying to convince her distracted husband that she's naked under that red silk sheet. He's unmoved. Meanwhile she confesses that she thinks she really has what it takes to be on one of those singing shows on TV. You know the ones? After all, what with his meager military pay someone's got to up the ante and provide her with a glamorous life.

Why couldn't have her husband Othello been a baller or a rapper? He has the physical skills.

This gets under Othello's skin, he calls her out on the stereotype but moments later, after putting on whiteface, announces he's going to try out being "white." After all he's asked the Doge to consider him for political office. You see where this is going, right?

To round out our cast of characters, Emilia is a played by a man in drag in a form fitting dress and Iago is loomingly projected with a headset, a bare chest, lipstick, and a biker jacket -- sort of a cross between "Big Brother" and a teenage Sex Pistols fan from the 80's.

If playwright Charles A. Duncombe stuck with this stranded, racially charged but oddly aware world, there might be a play here. Unfortunately, as soon as Othello/Desdemona picks up momentum it descends into a series of disjointed lectures or commentaries on "Othello." We abandon Desdemona for a sarcastic diatribe from a white-faced Othello, who's discovered the problem with black people. He says,

"Speaking as a white person. I can honestly say the problem with black people is black people."

Now, Mr. Duncombe is trying to goad us and push some buttons to realize that this is part of the historical baggage of Shakespeare. As he has Othello say, "I am not a black man. I am a black man written by a white man writing about a black man that a white man wrote about 400 years ago."

If you enjoy that kind of puzzle this might be the play for you. For me, it felt like a clever friend holding forth on the problems that underpin Shakespeare's text and how they might play out today. That might be a fascinating lecture but it doesn't make for a very compelling play.

Othello/Desdemona plays at the City Garage in Santa Monica through May 29.

This is Anthony Byrnes Opening the Curtain on LA Theater for KCRW.

Running time: 75 minutes without an intermission.

Photo: Kenzie Kilroy and RJ Jones in Othello/Desdemona